Money Can’t Buy Happiness in Half a Sixpence at Goodspeed
By Amy J. Barry
Following Happy Days, a made-for-stage version of the TV hit series, Goodspeed gets back to what it’s known for doing best with its current show, Half a Sixpence —and that’s reviving rarely produced classic musical comedies.
A sort of reverse gender, rags to riches My Fair Lady, the musical, about a young Cockney shop clerk named Arthur Kipps, who lives in a cellar before inheriting a fortune, 300,000 pounds to be exact (a LOT of money at the turn-of-the-century when the play takes place) is based on the 1906 H. G. Wells novel Kipps and was inspired by Well’s own financial success.
Half a Sixpence had a successful run in London from 1963-1965 and then moved to Broadway for more than 500 performances.
Despite its lighthearted humor, the musical attempts a more serious statement about the awful inequalities in the class system in Edwardian England. Under the direction of Gordon Greenburg, the Goodspeed production reflects the contradictions between the rigidity of the time in which the play is set when mingling among the upper crust and working class was strictly a no-no and the social barriers that were beginning to breakdown in England in the early ’60s when the play premiered.
In some scenes, the sets (cleverly crafted by Rob Bissinger) have an almost surreal contemporary quality with exaggerated, lopsided angles (the Emporium where Kipps works) and others are straight-on realistic locations (The Bear and Banjo Bar where the working men congregate). The music is equally schizoid with some subtle, abstract pieces, like the opening number, “All in the Cause of Economy,” interspersed with signature Goodspeed high-energy but predictable full ensemble song and dance numbers.
Jon Peterson, who has many Broadway credits including the lead in George M. Cohan Tonight! is charming and engaging as the lowly befuddled shop clerk who can’t seem to please anyone and certainly not himself once he becomes a man of wealth and discovers money can’t buy happiness. Peterson has a pleasing, low-key vocal style, but it takes some imagination to get beyond references to Peterson’s character as a young lad—the actor clearly looks his 46 years. Yet the youthful enthusiasm Peterson exudes makes the age discrepancy less glaring as the play proceeds.
Kipps’ love interest Ann, a servant for the wealthy Walsinghams, is played by Sara Gettelfinger, who practically towers over Peterson—another odd casting choice. But Gettelfinger has a lovely voice and is genuine as the straight-shooting, simple soul, refusing to take any crap from “Artie” her childhood sweetheart, who dumps her for the rich and attractive Helen (Julia Osborne) with her perfect elocution. But after Kipps sees the error of his ways, Ann takes him back for a romantic happily ever after ending.
There are many strong non-lead performances including Jeff Skowron as Chitterlow—the colorful and eccentric playwright who informs Kipps of his inheritance after reading about it in the newspaper. Carrington Vilmont is marvelous as the stuffy aristocratic Young Walsingham, with a crazy gleam in his eye, who invests and then squanders all of Kipps’ money.
Although there aren’t many well-known songs in the show, there are several stand-out numbers including the bouncy “Half a Sixpence” (Kipps and Ann) “Money to Burn” and “Flash Bang Wallop” (Kipps and Company), the haunting “Long Ago” (Ann and Kipps) and the determined “I know What I Am (Ann).”
Superb dancers pull off some very impressive moves choreographed by Patti Colombo and as usual at Goodspeed, the orchestra, directed by Michael O’Flaherty, is first-rate.
Half a Sixpence is at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam through Sept. 19. For tickets, call the box office at 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org.
This review appeared in Living section of Shore Publishing Newspapers on Aug. 21, 2008.